Nick Dermo says there's very little pregame chatter between him and Dom Cuoci, his battery mate and La Salle's ace pitcher, before one of Cuoci's scheduled starts.

"He's a bit independent," the senior catcher said. "It's best to leave him alone, let him listen to his music. You know he's going to be ready to go to work."

Even while nursing a middle-back injury, Cuoci answered the call again Saturday. The senior righthander yielded only three hits though six innings, and the host Explorers topped Archbishop Ryan, 6-3, in a Catholic League Red Division game at sun-soaked Ward Field.

Cuoci said he tweaked his back in last Monday's win over Ryan.

"It's kind of a wincing pain," the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder said. "It's not too bad. I took a couple of aspirin in the morning. It was kind of wearing off toward the end of the game."

Though he reached for his back in the seventh inning, when he allowed three consecutive hits and two runs, Cuoci had a brief chat with La Salle coach Joe Parisi and put the finishing touches on a six-hit triumph.

"As a competitor, you want to go the whole way," Cuoci said. "At the same time, you understand that it's the coach's call. He makes the final decision."

On 99 pitches, with 77 for strikes, the St. Joseph's recruit registered eight strikeouts. He mixed a fastball clocked in the mid-80s-m.p.h. range, slider, and change-up.

Cuoci closed the victory by getting Ryan's Bobby Romano, a hard-hitting senior shortstop and Fairleigh Dickinson recruit, to ground out to third base.

"Right there, you saw the competitive juices flowing on both sides," Parisi said of the duel between Cuoci and Romano.

Cuoci, who doubles as a third baseman, is 2-1 with a 4.05 ERA. The 18-year-old, who last year was an Inquirer first-team all-Southeastern Pennsylvania pick, has struck out 27 and walked just one in 212/3 innings.

"I think he's the best pitcher in the Catholic League," Ryan first-year coach Gerry Eck said. "He's very poised, keeps hitters off balance."

Cuoci, who has a .444 batting average (12 for 27) from the cleanup spot, spent the winter as a reserve for La Salle's basketball squad, which advanced to the PIAA Class AAAA championship game in Hershey.

"It was a fun ride, and I really enjoyed the time I spent with the coaches and the guys on the team," he said. "Also, it helped me stay in shape for baseball."

Down by 1-0 against Ryan, the Explorers (9-2 overall, 7-2 league) scratched out single runs in the third and fourth innings. A four-run sixth was highlighted by RBI singles from Brian Buckley, Ryan Coonahan, and A.J. Grezeszak.

The Raiders (3-6, 2-6) were missing a few regulars because of disciplinary issues.

Archbishop Ryan 100 000 2 - 3 6 1

La Salle 001 104 x - 6 5 3

WP: Dom Cuoci. LP: Anthony Chiardio. 2B: AR-Joe Iannacone.